The process is dam­aged

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­ — Twit­ter: @ Wanger­sky.

If you ask some­one to make a de­ci­sion for you, and, when you don’t like what they pick and you go ahead and do some­thing else, it’s just rude.

But if, as an elected politi­cian, you call a plebiscite, and when you don’t like the re­sult, you then sim­ply throw it all out, well, that’s be­yond dis­re­spect­ful. Elected to gov­ern at the will of the peo­ple, you ig­nore that will at your own peril.

In Prince Ed­ward Is­land, that’s what has hap­pened. In a plebiscite, vot­ers chose to bring in a form of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion in­stead of the tra­di­tional “first past the post” elec­toral re­sult.

Why get rid of first-past-the­p­ost? For the sim­ple rea­son that sup­port of some­thing like 36 per cent of vot­ers in an elec­tion can put a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment in place, even though 64 per cent of vot­ers ac­tu­ally voted against them.

Here’s the prob­lem: only 36.4 per cent of Is­lan­ders voted. While 52.4 per cent of those who voted wanted mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, 42.8 per cent were fine with the ex­ist­ing sys­tem. Then, the wheels fell off. In­stead of mak­ing any kind of de­ci­sion, it turns out the vote was a bit of a farce.

“The plebiscite was an ex­er­cise on rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy and bring­ing this dis­cus­sion to the floor of the Assem­bly un­der­scores this en­deavor,” Premier Wade MacLauch­lan said. He later brought in a mo­tion to have a ref­er­en­dum on the sub­ject dur­ing the next provin­cial elec­tion, sug­gest­ing that the turnout meant the plebiscite wasn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pub­lic. So, in nut­shell, some time in the fu­ture, some­thing might hap­pen. Or not.

The peo­ple vot­ing prob­a­bly didn’t think they were just “ex­er­cis­ing.” They weren’t told in ad­vance that their votes could be mean­ing­less. And the peo­ple who didn’t vote? Well, they made their choice too — they had lots of op­por­tu­nity, and they chose not to take part.

It’s eer­ily rem­i­nis­cent of the fed­eral Lib­er­als, who promised elec­toral re­form as part of their cam­paign plat­form. Now that first-past-the-post has put them in of­fice, they seem cu­ri­ously dis­in­ter­ested in chang­ing things. The fed­eral Lib­er­als had said they were “com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that 2015 will be the last fed­eral elec­tion con­ducted un­der the first-past-the-post vot­ing sys­tem.”

That resolve has since eroded in a way that sounds eerie like MacLauch­lan’s take on “pub­lic ex­er­cise.” Here’s fed­eral Demo­cratic In­sti­tu­tions Min­is­ter Maryam Mon­sef, on CTV’s Ques­tion Pe­riod: “We’re com­mit­ted to this ini­tia­tive, but we’re not go­ing to move for­ward un­less we have the broad sup­port of the peo­ple of this coun­try for whom we’re mak­ing this change.” This, af­ter more than 700 peo­ple took the time and ef­fort to make pre­sen­ta­tions to a spe­cial House com­mit­tee con­sid­er­ing pos­si­ble changes.

If you cam­paign on the idea of chang­ing the sys­tem to bet­ter rep­re­sent what peo­ple want, play­ing around with that in­ten­tion af­ter the fact leaves peo­ple feel­ing be­trayed.

Or worse: it can leave them so dis­gusted that they no longer be­lieve the sys­tem even wants their in­put.

And if you’re go­ing to ask peo- ple to vote on some­thing, you can’t toss the vote on the trash pile — say­ing it’s just not good enough — not when it’s a fair, open vote where ev­ery­one has a chance to go to the polls, if they choose.

When you tell peo­ple they have a voice, and then you sim­ply take that voice away, it’s worse than not ask­ing for their opin­ions at all.

It’s all well and good for a politi­cian to ar­gue they are pro­tect­ing democ­racy.

In re­al­ity, by dis­miss­ing what the peo­ple want by say­ing it doesn’t fit the par­tic­u­lar struc­ture you en­vi­sion, you’re dam­ag­ing the whole process.

Once bit­ten, twice shy holds true for vot­ers, too.

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